An Uncle's Diary Cont The War Years Feb 41
Posted by Mac Cummings on May 15, 2018, 11:02 am
February 9th Movement in the area and great activity in camp. |
February 10th About Midnight we were awakened by Sgt. Moat who informed us that the lines laid out to the base at Helwan had to be brought in at top speed – a move and action at last, - we were very “Green.” We piled into the waiting Humber Snipes and were soon bowling along the Cairo Road to Helwan. Arriving at Helwan we roused the HQ party who were sleeping by the Recorder, and informed them of the goings on…they were tired and they were not amused, especially my friend Carey Evans, as he tried to rouse himself to life.
I was in Bdr. Smiths party and the lines came in fairly well until 3am when we finally managed to lose ourselves in the vastness and coldness of the Arabian Desert (this was the drivers idea of a short cut.) We wandered around in circles for hours ‘til at length we switched on the headlights and shouted ourselves hoarse……..at 5 in the morning we were located and taken back for breakfast.
February 11th As we returned back to Beni Yusef, we noticed that the streets of Cairo were gaily beflagged and bedecked with garlands, we were informed that it was the anniversary of King Farouk’s accession to the throne.
We arrived back at 10am and so to bed until 3 in the afternoon.
Transport arrives from out of the blue, and it’s the real thing this time, the question is where? Libya or the wastes of Eritrea and Abysinnia.
Check and load stores all day, and at night we have our first rain……heavy but only for a very short time. We finish loading by late evening.
February 12th Final day Parade, and a celebration in the NAAFI, we are still very green and it’s the only time we celebrated going into action.
February 13th We leave at 5-30 in the afternoon, and are taken by truck to the station at El Ghizar……the roads through the camp are lined with crowds of boys, giving us a rousing send off. Arriving at Ghizar we find the 64th Medium also entraining, and realise that we are not the only regiment in the war. Boarding the train at 7-30pm we head South along the Nile Valley, destination unknown, but our guesses were not far short of the truth.
February 14th Arrived in Luxor at 7pm after a very uncomfortable evening, and have breakfast and rolls by the wayside at about 8am. I shouldn’t think they are having eggs at this time way back home. Luxor is the playground of the wealthy Egyptians, and is noted for its famous ruins and lovely gardens. We were in a hurry and not had time to stay. On the same train are the 64th Medium, some RASC and RAOC. Push off again along Kitcheners Railway towards El Shelah, a few miles South of the Great Dam at Asswan. The country is very rocky indeed, and the scene at sunset is most picturesque, with the suns rays sparkling on the red sandstones at Asswan.
At Shelah the railway terminates, in fact it literally runs into the river, which is much larger than its natural bed because of the dam at Asswan. Here were several of Cooks pleasure steamers and barges waiting to embark us and our stores.
While the guns (6” Hows) were manhandled onto the barges, we went for lunch at a nearby transit camp., this entailed walking along the slippery banks of the Nile in the blazing mid-day sun…temperature over the 100 mark. We boarded the SS Meroe (we learned later that they had shot most of the scenes for the “Four Feathers” from this Steamer) and made ourselves comfortable on the first class sun deck. At sunset we left Shelah and headed due south towards the Sudan. The night was delightfully warm, and as we lay on our blankets sipping our hot sweet tea, we rated this trip a fine thing…and so it was while it lasted. I have a very pleasant place to sleep…the forward part of the sun deck, and its made even more pleasant by the cool breeze which was matured of the ship as she ploughed steadily along at some 6 Knots.
The food aboard was good and there was a fair ration of hot sweet tea. This and the lack of parade made the trip a pleasant one.
Behind us and alongside trailed the slow barges carrying the guns and the transport. The River Nile is very wide at this point, because of the dam at Asswan, and there is evidence of villages that have long since been submerged, and groups of Palm trees, their knotted tops just showing above the water. Here and there a crocodile would be spotted, whilst crowds of coloured birds waded in the shallows.
February 15th All day long we travelled South, though the river made some amazing turns at times (we often found ourselves heading North again.)
February 16th Towards 4 in the afternoon we arrived at Wadi Halfa where the railway commences again. After tea we commenced to upload stores and load them again onto the waiting train. The guns proved quite a problem, as the gradient from the barges to the railway level was quite a steep one…it took the brawny backs of some thirty men to pull each gun ashore. The frontier of Egypt had been crossed some way back, and we were now in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, having come some 600 miles. The natives here are of a much superior type than you find in Egypt, with their skins as black as coal and unlike their brothers in the North, their lily white garments. How they achieve such a whiteness with only cold water and elbow grease remains a mystery to me. These natives are of a much friendlier type and what is more are honest.
We left Halfa at half past seven in the evening, and headed South along Kitcheners railway towards Khartoum. We all managed to sleep despite the unevenness of the track.
February 17th Moving south along the Nile valley becomes rather tiring and everyone is now a trifle bored with his immediate surroundings. The heat is beginning to tell, and visits to the water tank are frequent. We reach our first station, a miserable collection of stone huts plus a water tower, its name Abu North. Here we buy water melons while the train refuels, and George Petherick becomes very popular with the local children…for a single man he has quite a way with the young ones. The temperature is 110.
February 18th Still moving south at a snails pace. It must be Keren in Eritrea where the Italians are holding out firmly in their mountain fortress. Arrived at long last at our first junction, Atbara on the Atbara river, a tributary of the Nile. It is half past six in the evening, and we have time to visit the local NAAFI, there is also a local English colony here. Leave at half past eight for the railhead at Kassala on the borders of Eritrea and the Sudan
February 19th We arrive at Kassala at four in the morning, our bones aching with four days and nights spent in a ramshackle train. The country around Kassala is very desolate indeed with vast outcrops of volcanic rocks standing like sentinels. At Kassala these outcrops are of immense size, with smooth vertical sides, and long furrows. These were not to be climbed until 1942, when three school teachers from Khartoum attempted successfully the almost impossible feat, at the same time exploding the legend that a gold fig tree grew at the top. To the North is the grasslands, abounding with game and as we passed through this area prior to reaching Kassala we saw plenty of livestock…Giraffes, Ostriches, Gazelles and a host of others…and on each telegraph pole there sat as a rule a vulture. We disentrained at 7 in the morning and after hanging around as is usual for the better part of the morning, we made camp in a thorn tree wood just outside Kassala. It is extremely hot and the trees provide little shade. We parade at six in the evening and are given a Pep talk… tomorrow we leave for Keren and our first action. Load up our trucks, fill up with fuel and water, and sleep by the trucks.
Reveille is at 05-30 hours and we leave on the first stage of our journey at seven, passing through Kassala which still shows signs of the battle which passed it some weeks previous. At half past eight, having crossed a waterless plain, we enter Eritrea proper, and arrive at our first Eritean town of Buva Tesseni which does not make a very pleasant picture. It is extremely hot, the temperatures being well over the 110 mark, and the sides of the trucks do not bear touching. At six in the evening we arrive at Barentu, scene of a very savage action, and the smell of the dead still lingers on. We make camp in a thorn tree wood again (thorn trees are the most common species in this country) and prepare the evening meal. Our driver fills up and puts four gallons of Paraffin into his tanks by mistake…it should still go. I sleep by the trucks, and the thorns keep sticking into me.
February 21st Leave at seven in the morning on the last lap for Keren. Climb over a very high range of hills outside Barentu, by way of a very tortuous and winding road, which is a remarkable piece of engineering. The surface alas is bad and in some places does not even exist, thanks to the zeal of the Italian engineers with their little sticks of dynamite.
Arrived at Agordat at two in the afternoon, the last town before Keren, we are not feeling so happy now, and in the distance we can hear the guns booming. Pulled into Happy Valley lying before Keren (which the Wops hold) at seven in the evening, and for a while lay a sitting target on the main road, right under the eye’s of the Wops artillery O.P.’s situated on the heights of Mount Sanchel…perhaps the Italians were much too surprised …or for a change trying to be gentlemen.
We went straight into action with a sound ranging base, and heard our first enemy shells screaming over, it wasn’t so good. (I had been constipated all the long journey down the Nile, but the first shells to hit the deck in our direction brought instant relief…not a recommended cure)
We laid Microphones Nos. 4 and 5 away to the left of the base, which was some three to four miles long, and situated in a very unhealthy area.
February 22nd Finish laying M 4 and 5 and have a chance to look around. The Imperial troops including parts of the 4th and 5th Indian divisions, plus a sprinkling of corps troops are holding the valleys and the low ground generally in front of the heights which lie immediately in front of the town of Keren. Looking from Mount Fuimit (in our lines) west the whole of the dried river bed can be seen which holds the bulk of our forces. Flanking it to the north and west are the heights known as Brigs Peak and Pinnacle. Three very jagged heights known as Sanchel…here the Italian artillerymen can look down at leisure upon our positions, and direct their own fire with great accuracy. Looking south you can see the volcanic hills surroundind Agordat and the road winding among the hills, its direction and turns marked with huge clouds of dust, as the convoys hurry to and from the railhead.
February 23rd Today (Sunday) we laid our worst microphone M1, and the line had to be manhandled most of the way up a steep mountain slope. It was very tiring work, it was also very hot, Temp120. This line took seven hours to lay and we returned to HQ on our knees, and drank gallons of tea.
The Battle for Keren
Several efforts had been made to break through the Mountain fortress fortress surrounding Keren without success, and our casualties were very heavy, so we waited until we could build up our strength and a kind of reserve, (there was then very little war material in the Middle East.) Air support was almost non-existent apart from a few Gladiators and a couple of ancient bombers.
We were camped at the top end of Happy Valley and had our trucks hidden (we hoped) under some thorn trees, which because of their size afforded us some shade. Food was neither bad or good, vegetables were always rotten. Bird life was the most interesting study of all in our spare time, followed by the hunting of Baboons which came a close second. The birds were very tiny indeed and were of the Humming bird species, their colouring was something to be marvelled at, Reds, Blues. Greens. All the colours of the rainbow plus a few more.
Between now and March 14th when the Battle for Keren opened up, there was little to do but extra survey and the maintenance of the base…Y troop were also in action here.